Problem solving is the enemy of empathy

It’s actually very common, even “normal”, in human conversations to jump to solutions. But this is the enemy of authentic human exchanges.

Water colour graphic representation of microbial cells in red and blue and green and yellow and orange.

Listening is hard work. And listening to someone’s pain is even harder.

Humans are good at avoiding pain. And we have a variety of defence reactions designed to block the experience of having pain. And that includes the pain caused by proximity to someone else’s pain.

This poses a problem for empathy. Empathy connects us to others’ pain. Problem solving is one of the most common blocks, and it can be hard to notice because most of the time problem solving is a pro social behaviour. Problem solving is an emotional intelligence skill.

This comic is really great.

In coaching we resist the impulse to offer solutions to the challenges our clients talk about. This is no small feat actually. It takes practice and more practice.

It’s actually very common, even “normal”, in human conversations to jump to solutions. But this is the enemy of authentic human exchanges. So stop it. Seriously, stop it.

Our desire to problem solve might come from empathy, but it doesn’t express empathy. We struggle to see someone we love and care about in pain. It hurts us. That hurt flows from empathy.

And it’s uncomfortable. So we try to put it in the closet. Our brain reacts impulsively: go away pain.

“Sooo… you just want me to listen to your story of heartbreak and control my impulse to mucky muck and look smart and fix things?”

But in order to express empathy, we need to do something else. And this something else takes practice. It’s a little like walking into fire. It takes training. You have to overcome your fear of discomfort.

Even after coaching for as long as I have, it’s extraordinary how often the impulse to problem solve comes up. It’s ongoing. And I have to continue to cultivate my awareness and my capacity to resist the gravitational force of trying to fix people’s challenges.

When I offer a solution, it immediately makes me feel better. But when someone else offers a solution to me, I often feel like they’re shutting down the conversation. Problem solving is a an exit. Problem solving can act as a signal to the person exploring a situation, that the exploration is (or should be) over. And in some cases this invitation to exit is not an invitation. It’s a tacit judgement of someone’s interest in exploring the terrain of their experience.

Solutions we offer are rarely as good as what someone comes up with themselves. This is because folks know the nuance and subtleties of their context. Or they want to know it. This is why in coaching we cultivate the practice of asking questions. We try to create a space within which people can explore the terrain of their contexts and emotions and when they’re ready they can construct their own map and path.

Even in the instance that a coach, or mentor, or friend, does know better than a colleague, this doesn’t necessarily predicate problem solving. Doing so prematurely can rob them of the chance to explore and articulate their experience and effectively journey through a map of their own creation.

In many contexts, especially in our work lives, problem solving is what’s called for. This is why it’s so important to avoid doing it in the situations where problem solving is best set aside.

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